March 23, 2016

I Sing the Body Terrific

On Luis Cernuda’s Poemas para un cuerpo (“Poems for a Body”)

In we think it is high time for Poetry, and the occasion calls for one of the best 20th century Spanish poets.

Portrait of Luis Cernuda
Luis Cernuda (Seville, 1902 - Mexico City, 1963) was not only a poet but also a literary critic who belonged to the so-called Generation of ’27.[1] Although not so universally popular as his acclaimed friend Federico García Lorca,[2] his work is also interesting in the study of Spanish LBGT literature. In 1936 he published his collected poetry so far in the book La realidad y el deseo (“Reality and Desire”).[3] This work was much praised by Lorca himself, and was supposed to establish the beginning of a brilliant career—but the cultural impact of La realidad y el deseo was collapsed by the upcoming outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Society was definitely not in the mood for Erato’s stuff in those days.

Since 1938, Cernuda starts a never ending exile: from Europe (London, Glasgow, Cambridge, Paris) to America (Mount Holyoke, Los Angeles, San Francisco). In most of these places he works as a lecturer of Spanish for a living, but Luis never feels easy at all—until 1951. This year he will travel to Mexico for holidays and there he meets Salvador Alighieri, the young bodybuilder who inadvertently inspired Poemas para un cuerpo.

Our author had already sung young beautiful men’s praises, in the ways of the Surrealist aesthetics, in 1931 in the book Los placeres prohibidos (“Forbidden Pleasures”. . .quite a telling title). However, in the case of Poemas para un cuerpo, we cannot say its tone is particularly carnal or sexual, no matter what the use of the term cuerpo (“body”) may suggest—Apparently, Cernuda and Alighieri’s relationship did not surpass the boundaries of a male proper regular friendship.[4]

Then, what do we find in these poems? Lots of things: From the traditional poem in which the Poet puns on the meaning of his Beloved’s name (I . “Salvador”, meaning savior), or recalls the very moment that the Beloved got away from him (II. “Despedida”: “Farewell”), to a surprisingly deep reflection on love as the distinguishing nature of Fiction. In IX. “De dónde vienes” (“Where Do You Come From”), the Poet rejects the assumption that his Beloved may have parents, but he is Cernuda’s own creation. The last line of this poem, meaningfully apart from the general stanza, as a maxim, says: Un puro conocer te dio la vida. (“Just a pure knowledge gave birth to you”). The same as the title of his whole work, La realidad y el deseo, you can well deduce two Platonist existential planes from Poemas para un cuerpo: Reality, in which the Beloved was his parents’ son; and Desire, where the Beloved is an idea in Cernuda’s mind.

Additionally, Cernuda reflects on the concept that the Beloved has also created him. This is in XIII. “Fin de la apariencia” (“End of the Appearance”), where the Poet expresses that the Beloved has somehow deconstructed him, tearing his past life apart, but making him a brand new, innocent man who has to cope with life away from the Beloved. The Poet also adds that the only purpose of his existence is to love, though he knows that the Beloved does not seem to need or care about this affection. This bitter note, in which the Poet shows this awareness, is also repeated in other poems throughout the whole series. The Poet is sensitive about this situation. His love is a one way road: his feelings are not returned, and he has elevated the Beloved.

This way, creation and creator form a vicious circle: The Beloved needs the Poet to be created, to be alive; and the Poet needs the Beloved to love, to go on living. Instead of clay, the poet works with the hermosa materia (“beautiful material”), that hot sleeping body at which Cernuda stares, the same way a God stares at his creation (in the last poem of the series, XVI. “Un hombre con su amor”: “A Man with His Love”). And all this is expressed in words. After all, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

This creator topic pushes the limits of blasphemy. In XV. “Divinidad celosa” (“Jealous God”), the Poet claims that God pushes lovers apart as he is jealous of them: A man can get together with his equals, but God, being an only entity, cannot. Also in V. “El amante espera” (“The Lover Awaits”), the Poet begs God to make his Beloved come back, as he feels that God is the only helping friend that he can count on and his Beloved is his ultimate reason to live, though he admits that what he is pleading for is a sin. . .Finally, in XI. “El amante divaga” (“The Lover Digresses”), the Poet wonders if Heaven and Hell are nothing but earthly inventions by human beings with no other purpose than making life spicier.

In general terms, Poemas para un cuerpo is Cernuda’s continuous conversation with himself (an evident symptom of solitude: Cernuda is typically described as a dandy-like man in tweed, smoking a pipe, absorbed in his work—a sort of mild, silent, unsociable loner). He uses several person voices in his clear, unadorned, almost conversational style: sometimes 1st person (e.g., he even names himself in III. “Para ti, para nadie”: “For You, For Nobody”); 3rd person (in I. “Salvador”, when the Poet asks the Beloved to save him or condemn him); and even 2nd person (for instance, in VI. “Después de hablar”: “After Speaking”, where he disapproves himself for telling his love out loud).

Despite this sorrowful picture of a lonely man recalling a past, unrequited love, Cernuda does not want our pity: He shows proud that, even after long years of lonesomeness, and though in his fifties, he has eventually experienced love—non corresponding, okay, but love indeed—, and he comes to the conclusion that the memory of this feeling is the high power that keeps him alive: now, he knows himself better than ever. In this fast, material, superficial, egotistical world. . .who else has loved as much as this profound, Platonic, fascinating, one-of-a-kind author?

[1] In Spanish, Generación del 27: a group of writers and intellectuals who gathered in Seville in 1927 to pay homage to the Spanish Golden Age poet Luis de Góngora for the 300th anniversary of his death. Besides Cernuda, you can find amongst them: Federico Gª. Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Dámaso Alonso, and Nobel Prize-winning Vicente Aleixandre.
[2] After Lorca’s execution, Cernuda produced the elegy “A un poeta muerto (F. G. L.)” (“To a Dead Poet”), whose sixth stanza was considered not for publication and thus removed. Here it is:
Aquí la primavera luce ahora.
Mira los radiantes mancebos
Que vivo tanto amaste
Efímeros pasar junto al fulgor del mar.
Desnudos cuerpos bellos que se llevan
Tras de sí los deseos
Con su exquisita forma, solo encierran
Amargo zumo, que no alberga su espíritu
Un destello de amor ni de alto pensamiento.
In these lines Cernuda describes splendid, seductive (though unkind and low-minded) boys walking naked on the beach in spring, and states Lorca loved them so when alive. The elegy was eventually published complete in Las nubes (“The Clouds”), a book that became the 7th section of La realidad y el deseo.
[3] As a matter of fact (and as it was pointed out in the previous footnote), most of his following works will also be collected as sections of this book in later publications. Poemas para un cuerpo was first published in Málaga in 1957; however, they are now usually found as a short independent series of 16 poems inside the book Con las horas contadas (“Hours Are Numbered”), which happens to be the 10th section of La realidad y el deseo.
[4] Regarding that Salvador Alighieri himself stated that gay men usually tried to score him, that he used to visit Cernuda in his apartment many times, that they both went on holidays together, and Cernuda always paid the bills, a twisted mind could think that Alighieri knew Cernuda’s feelings towards him and took advantage. . .Anyway, as I said before, this is typical of twisted minds—not our minds, so sweet and gentle and well-meaning.